As esports has grown, more money has come. That much is pretty simple to figure out. But where the money is coming from has started to cause fans some concern.
In particular, the wealthy venture capitalists who have over the last few years started to gather teams under their umbrella, adding more and more teams to their portfolios. On the surface, there is little wrong with this. Investors are usually looking for a return on investment, and investing early (and it’s still relatively early), usually helps maximize the chance of a return. But over the last couple years, the trend has started to look a little more sinister.
The recent RFRSH revelations from Richard Lewis have once again raised the issue of monopolies in esports. It’s not the first time and won’t be the last, but what is so wrong with one investor owning multiple teams? Well, some problems are about conflict of interest, particularly when teams are playing for relegation/promotion or qualifying for major tournaments. The concern would be that somehow the players would be forced to lose a match based on what was best for the group owner, and though no evidence of this has ever been produced, it does remain a possibility. Conflicts of interest can exist without any wrongdoing happening, but the ability for wrongdoing to occur (or the perception that it will) is problematic.
The bigger picture, and a worry many have had over the years when teams are owned or controlled by one entity, has always been whether those teams will be placed in an exclusive league, restricting the fans’ enjoyment of seeing the best teams in the world all playing together in the same tournaments. From an investor’s point of view, it’s smart to invest, buy and control multiple teams and bring them together under one league. That maximizes their potential investment return, adds value to the league based on the teams competing and makes them more attractive for advertisers, sponsors, broadcasting rights and coverage. If that’s the only place to see the teams, then the fans will come — at least, that’s the thought process.
In other words, much of the political and financial decisions in esports are about control and positioning. Control allows a greater chance of large investment returns. Yes, there are still some involved in the esports scene who love the scene and want to grow it for all, but the vast majority of those entering recently look at it a different way. They view esports as a way to make money, and though in a capitalist-led world, that’s not a crime, it does start to threaten the very essence of what makes esports so great — especially if that’s their only goal, regardless of who they crush along the way.
So what is the solution? Some would say it’s associations, unions or regulation, and though that might ring true in most sports where a governing body can stop someone holding more than a small amount of shares in more than one club (like FIFA/UEFA/The FA does), esports doesn’t have one defining, ruling body. Even if it did, it would likely still be near impossible to regulate.
Where esports differs most in the traditional sports model is publishers and developers. The publisher of the game or the owner of the intellectual property has all the cards, yet when it comes to esports, few have deep experience of it and even fewer wield the ultimate power they have. It’s true that Blizzard, Valve and more recently Activision have all taken a much bigger interest in esports over the last five years, yet none has so far been willing to take the regulatory strides that Riot has with League of Legends. Yet for all Riot’s work on regulation and clamping down on people owning more than one team in its leagues, there have also been many mistakes made. Riot’s overwhelming power has been a constant topic of strife within the League of Legends community.
Who else could realistically govern the ruling body, though? Sure, the World Esports Association or the Professional Esports Association or International e-Sports Federation could be the answer; pull together all three and there is a lot of influence and power there for a potential worldwide federation (as unlikely as it seems ever happening). But even then, we still come back to the one abiding truth: the owner of the game is king. If WESA puts out a rule on which teams can play in its league and Valve doesn’t like it, Valve could simply pull the license to run a tournament using its games. The ultimate power is with the publishers and creators of the games, so it follows that ultimately they will also control the regulation of the esport.
The future might look a little rocky right now, but once the publishers realize their power seat and have the will to jump in and regulate, I could honestly see a future in esports where each game has its own regulatory body, likely controlled by the publisher of the game but made up of various entities that produce tournaments, broadcast them and play in them. Investment in multiple teams might look like good business right now, but in the long run, exclusive leagues and mass ownership might not be something the publishers like or want.
They said, we were moving out of the Wild West, but frankly, the pistols are just getting bigger and it’s harder to see who is on each side. For sure, though, the publisher is the sheriff.